A federal judge sidestepped mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines on June 11 to sentence the owner of a now-defunct Morro Bay marijuana dispensary to a year and a day in federal prison, less than the five years called for. Still, his attorneys said they will appeal.
Arroyo Grande resident Charles Lynch was convicted last summer on five counts related to growing and distributing marijuana from his dispensary, and each of his crimes called for a year in prison. The long-delayed sentencing came on the heels of a major shift in federal medical marijuana policy that came with the election of President Obama. The switch left Lynch in a sort of legal limbo for months.
Federal drug laws do not recognize any medical benefits related to marijuana, though a dozen states have passed laws to allow patients protected use of the drug. Under the Obama Administration, the policy has shifted from zero tolerance regarding state-sanctioned marijuana dispensaries, toward a guiding principle that looks for a violation of both state and federal law before dispensary operators are prosecuted. The shift came after Lynch was convicted.
Medical marijuana advocates have watched Lynch’s case closely, because it’s been widely accepted that Lynch was complying with California state marijuana laws. His business was under surveillance by local authorities for a year, but no state warrants were ever served. To date, he has not been charged with violating any state law.
Sheriff’s spokesman Rob Bryn said the department stands by the investigation, adding, “We have focused on and been able to prove, despite a concerted effort by agents of Mr. Lynch to prove to the contrary in the press, that he was, in fact, guilty of illegal sales of marijuana.”
Lynch’s criminal defense was based on his efforts to comply with state law, but much of that evidence wasn’t allowed to be heard in court. State law, the judge said at the time, was not relevant in a federal trial. Much of the prosecution’s case, too, was based on Lynch’s apparent compliance with state law: Lynch’s business and patient records were used as evidence against him.
During the sentencing hearing, Judge Geroge H. Wu found that Lynch had complied with state law, though the finding wasn’t ultimately relevant to the trial. Lynch’s compliance was, however, considered when it came to sentencing, and will likely be a factor when Lynch appeals the conviction.
Lynch was sentenced to exactly 366 days in prison, plus three years of supervised release. His attorneys said they’re appealing both the conviction and the sentence. Lynch will remain out on bail through the appeal process